It would be necessary to discuss technicalities about whether or not China is the oldest country in the world as it is defined at the time of its unification, but certainly there is no doubt that it is the oldest empire, because this word may have fallen into disuse, but that does not imply that empires do not exist, and that’s what China already was more than 2,000 years ago, more than a country, and it still is.
- With a population of almost 1,400 million inhabitants, in the most populated nation in the world you’ll find everything from cities whose metropolitan areas are over 30 million people, to villages where only a few families live. Here it loses to other great modern empires, formed by small countries (like the European Union) or newly created states (United States, Canada or Australia); in these there is more autonomy and each one tries to make their region as good as possible. This opportunity is not enjoyed by more disadvantaged Chinese provinces, each one of a size comparable to a country or large state, which are partly forgotten under the shadow of the main development nuclei, oriented to business, but also to tourism. What interests us here:
- Beijing. Like other world capitals, it would not be a big thing not to be in charge. In an arduous effort to make it attractive, emperors built for themselves, and for the eyes of the world, gigantic palaces and parks. They did not need them, the main attraction was already made for centuries: of the 12,000 kilometers that make up the Great Wall, the most accessible are within a day excursion distance from Beijing. Don’t think “it will not be that much”, the vision of the wall meandering as far as the eye can see is absolutely magical. An authentic architectural wonder.
- Shanghai was little more than a big port 150 years ago; Today is one of the most modern cities that exist, but at the same time preserves traces of traditional China, and is an excellent base to visit other nearby interesting cities, especially Suzhou and Hangzhou, and to a lesser extent Nanjing.
- Hong Kong is the other modern city that rings to us all a bell. Given its British colonial past, for the good and the bad it is the least Chinese place in China, and although this is a break in terms of organization on a trip, most visitors are disappointed. I particularly love the atmosphere of this new Babylon and I think its attractions are worth a visit.
- Xi’an. The capital from 221 BC to 904 AD became the largest and most powerful city in its time, which is why it houses an enormous cultural heritage. Today is a pleasant city with interesting architectural visits, the best known being the famous Terracotta Warriors, an army of thousands of sculptures built by the first emperor and buried with him.
- And then there are the small towns, those that represent rural China, whose image we all have in mind, full of canals and wooden houses with gray roofs. We think that this is the case of every village in the country, but we will quickly realize that they are in fact endangered: Fenghuang, Pingyao and those close to Mount Huang are some of the best known and best preserved.
- Nature, often ignored by organized trips, is one of the most diverse and extraordinary in the world, as befits a country of such enormous size.
- Its great asset are the mountains. Not only Tibet contains most of the Himalayas, including the north face of Everest. With a unique composition in an environment so exposed to erosion, karst mountains form otherworldly landscapes in places like Guilin, the Yellow Mountain (Huangshan) or Zhangjiajie (known for having inspired the world in the movie Avatar), which will leave speechless even those who have visited similar places, such as those in the Gulf of Thailand or Palawan in the Philippines. These hills have favored the construction of spectacular rice terraces, the best known being Longji and Yuanyang.
- To the northwest there are huge deserts, the best known being Gobi. This region is almost unknown to travelers, except those intrepid ones who cross it following the still existing and ancient Silk Road.
- Nor is there lack of great plains. The north of the country borders with Russia and Mongolia; the steppe, flat and endless is the norm. The tremendous winter cold will delight lovers of low temperatures, so that in Harbin City is held annually one of the most recognized competitions of ice sculptures in the world and in its vicinity you can spot aurora borealis.
- And it also has beaches, although they are not its strong point: Hainan province is an island that turns out to be the southernmost territory in China. It can not compete in beauty with beaches in Southeast Asia, but there it is.
- Gastronomy. Everyone believes to know it well, but we are wrong beyond the fact that in each dish there is rice or noodles. Chinese restaurants in Western countries are adapted to our tastes, so forget about chicken with bamboo and Chinese mushrooms or sweet and sour pork. In China dumplings are taken only for breakfast, the food is usually spicy, there are hundreds of dishes whose look and taste will come to resemble, they are very fond of huge pans where you boil ingredients of your choice, they adore barbecued skewers and when you ask for meat you never know which part of the animal you are going to get. If you add to this that in China almost no one speaks a word of any language other than Chinese, and therefore most restaurants only have the menu in Mandarin, eating can become a daily anecdote.
- Because it happens that one of the problems in China is that although bearable, it is not an easy country for independent travelers:
- Language barrier is a real inconvenience, and as with the Wall, do not think it will not be so much, because it is.
- Distances are exasperating, but transports have improved incredibly in the last 5 years with the excessive construction of high-speed train lines, which has meant less than half the time of travel in the most used means of locomotion by far, at a much lower cost than what we would pay in any western country. This is not exempt from a problem for tourists: at the end of 2018, foreigners can not book tickets online nor in automatic vending machines, which will mean paying commissions in an agency or queuing at a station trying to make understand through the translator of our mobile phone with an operator who will not speak English, being very careful not to end up in the wrong destination.
- But it also has important advantages:
- It’s cheap. € 30 for a double room in a 4 star hotel or € 7 for a bed in a shared room in a hostel, eat between € 2 and € 5 per person, two and a half hours by bullet train or 12 hours in a night train bed for € 23… are prices that will allow us to extend our stay until the expiration of our visa.
- By the way, for those fans of short visits, you no longer need a visa for stays between 3 and 6 days in the main tourist destinations of the country.
- And denying urban legends, and following the same path of progress that occurs with transport, it is a pity that the poor education of a few (that indeed exist) tarnish their fame, because they are friendly people who have only surprised us for good.
In one sentence: China is very big, and we are not talking about size.
- THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA
SHANGHAI AND SURROUNDINGS
- MOUNT HUANG
- MOUNT HUA
- CHONGQING CITY
- CRUISING THE THREE GORGES OF YANGTZE RIVER
- LONGJI RICE TERRACES
- TOURIST VISA FOR CHINA
- WHEN TO GO, OR BETTER SAID, WHEN NOT TO GO
- THINGS THAT WERE CERTAIN IN CHINA AND NO LONGER ARE
- TRANSPORTATION: HOW TO MOVE THROUGH THE COUNTRY, ESPECIALLY BY TRAIN
- CHINESE GASTRONOMY
- PRACTICALITIES AND PROBLEMS, DANGERS AND ANNOYANCES